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Brad Byrge has traded in basketballs for a guitar

My most vivid memory of Brad Byrge is almost 10 years old. I was standing on the top level of the Amphi High School gym, watching Byrge's Salpointe Lancers basketball team battle the host team for the 5A Southern Region championship. It was a brutal game in a packed gym, and emotions were high. Every basket for both teams had to be squeezed out through force of will, and half of the crowd would erupt with each one.

Like many great, close games, this one ended up being decided on a bad call by an otherwise good ref. And when the buzzer sounded, an exuberant Byrge took off running full speed in a circuitous route that took him right past the Amphi bench. He swears he doesn't remember what he said that night, but it couldn't have been nice, because everybody on the Amphi bench exploded to their feet and had to be corralled by the coaching staff.

I remember thinking of Byrge (whom I knew from having worked at Salpointe's basketball camps), "This idiot is going to start a riot." He didn't, but not for a lack of trying.

So, when Byrge's cousin, Jesse Mermuys, contacted me and told me that Brad is now an introspective troubadour seeking his way in the musical world, I thought maybe the guys on the Amphi bench had eventually caught up with him and finished that discussion about their mothers. But, as it turns out, even as Byrge was playing his senior year of high school ball, he was also teaching himself how to play the guitar and dreaming about someday sitting on a stool in a Tucson nightclub, pouring out his soul to a small, but attentive, crowd.

That dream gets a test drive Saturday, Sept. 22, at Club Congress when Byrge and his bassist buddy, Mike McAfee--collectively billed as BoldBird--take the stage at Club Congress. The free set begins at 7:30 p.m.

It's been a long, twisting road for Byrge. After high school, he went to Southern Utah University to play basketball. That didn't work out, so he drifted to a junior college in West Texas.

After a year in the armpit of the universe, he left for Glendale (Ariz.) Community College so that he could play a season with his aforementioned cousin, Jesse. Then things get murky. In his own words, "Got a girlfriend and moved to the San Fernando Valley. (That place sucks.)"

He eventually found his way back to Tucson (without the girlfriend), enrolled at the UA and got a degree in management information systems. He moved to Portland, Ore., where he hoped to focus on his music. Instead, he got a real job as the information-technology guy for a Michelin company. His best memory of Portland was that he stayed in Bill Walton's tipi for a few days.

Now, Bill Walton is one of my all-time favorite basketball players, and having lived through the 1970s, I understand why he used to have a tipi. But can somebody tell me why he still has a tipi?

Byrge put together a few songs (he neither reads music nor writes in a conventional manner), some of which are in a stream-of-consciousness mode, while others take a more structured approach. He came back to Tucson and recorded a CD at Loveland Studio. It's a bare-bones piece of work, with engineer Nathan Sabatino providing low-key bass and percussion accompaniment. John Ash, one of Byrge's high-school teammates who was later a member of the UA's 1997 national championship team, gets a credit on chimes on the song "Time (4th Ave.)."

No one will ever mistake Byrge's voice for that of Mick Hucknall or Philip Bailey, but there's something there, a plaintive, searching quality that draws the listener into the lyrics. Some of those lyrics scream non sequitur, like Dylan at his best or worst, depending on whether you were high the first time you heard them. Others, however, are thought-provoking and occasionally even creepy.

Indeed, Byrge lists Dylan as one of his influences, along with Willie Nelson, the late Johnny Cash and the even-later Townes Van Zandt.

Some of Byrge's stuff is bleaker than a course in Russian literature being taught by Ben Stein on a Friday night in a strip mall in South Phoenix. The aforementioned song that I keep humming, "Arizona Girl," is a minute and 50 seconds of skin-crawling recollection of a bad day.

Hey, hey, Arizona Girl,
You're going to die today.
Hey, hey, Arizona Girl,
Soon you'll be in your grave.

I asked Brad if he had sought professional help after writing those lyrics. He smiled and said, "Naw, just singing them was enough."

Check him out. The price is right, and the Club Congress venue is cool. If you go, try to get McAfee to speak. The big honker sounds (and from the proper angle, looks) as though he swallowed Barry White whole. He looks like he could make decent bass sounds by simply rubbing his fingers together.

These two Salpointe buddies are going to give it their best shot. They know that the odds are long and against them. But the music is in them, and they have to let it out.

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